Saturday, January 28, 2012

Essays For A New Age: The End of Information Age?

Industrial age has long ended, the pundits proclaimed, and we live in the information age. Indeed, the world in perspective is downtown LA, not some remote areas of Congo, where some farming tools, if they could be afforded, would be a good idea. However, once the proclamation is printed in books legitimised by top publishers' logos and the authors credentials longer than their names, it must be believed. Further, that idea is already in vogue and typing these words on a remote computer hooked in some network, I seem to be voting affirmative with my action. However, one question remains though: It seems that history has indeed accelerated a bit too fast, and this information age, or network economy or whichever name one calls it, is precariously close to catastrophe just after it has barely began.

Call it the revenge of Congo, where children who would consider themselves lucky to have a decent meal a day and would not miss anything if the Information Age ends tomorrow: However, the Information Age is not just about cheap flow of data across the world, but the belief that everything is instantaneous and that the knowledge, subliminal in physical structures and human relationships, is the chief, or sole, source of value. This suits everyone better than the clunky Industrial Age conception that labour was the creator-in-chief of value: The new theory can make all lazy opportunists feel comfortable that knowing who to play, when to play and how to play the system actually make all the difference. But despite this fine logic, we seem to have reached the end of a paradigm, and the principles, which, in their short lifespan, spawned so much hope, look already limp and lifeless.

Because the sustainability of information age depended on us all being consumers. To strip production of value of its labour, we had to move to the idea of immediacy of production and consumption, and eventually consumption before production. This is further idolised with the economic doctrine of contribution-though-consumption, as long as we spend, we are doing our bit towards collective well-being (bankers do more for the economy than the poor, indeed). Indeed, as long as we consume, everything works smoothly: We pay first and then labour in the servitude. We don't create value through labour any more, we merely catch up. Consumption also establishes the New World in its entirety, where knowing is everything: At the level of mere mortals, it is about checking out Groupon, and at another level of power, it is about knowing, and thereby setting, the rules with which the societies are run. 

This is what Zygmunt Bauman would call the Society of Consumers, as opposed to the Society of Producers, where consumption used to be deferred until someone has really earned it. The first English sentence I learnt - Cut your coat according to your cloth - is a relic of a bygone era, the Economists would say, when cloth production was limited. However, the Economists, who miss all metaphors except for their own, should explain that you can wear a cloth made out of imaginary cloth, and everyone would still marvel till someone has the courage to call the bluff.

The bluff that is - there is no cloth, but just credit. The idea is simple and not unlike those Athenians who simply sold themselves into slavery because they couldn't handle the responsibility of being independent. But it was nice too - one could buy a lovely house, a luxury car, a few trips abroad - all against a lifetime commitment of compliant labour. The producers were problematic: They always demanded a fair share for their troubles. But we are all consumers now: We are already signed up to do a life in pursuit of what we have already consumed.

The problem seems to be that this removes any limit, previously the cloth or limits of what one could produce, from what one may seem to want, and any ethical obligation, the hard work talk for example, to work for what you want. The human civilisation, painstakingly built over thousands of years, suddenly seems to reach a mothball moment, an ideological freeze where the deception is so widespread that truth seems not to be true anymore. In short, the ground is ripe for theorization for another age, one that will strive to reconcile the moral ironies of information age celebrations and may help our thinking move forward.

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